Posts filed under ‘Glasgow-Travails’
Where were we? Ah yes, my research. That ship has sailed but the light is being carried by Jim Gemmell and Gordon Brown. They recently brought out a book called “Total Recall” that has come out and their blog has some wonderful pointers of how we are on the path to create digital surrogates on the web already. Our bookmarks, history, thoughts, expertise, appointments, events, friends, bits, interests, locations, places, reminders, TV shows, artifacts like photos are all being archived/available on the web and with the right aggregator and linking services, one can pull together a fairly accurate digital version of oneself. Irrespective of all this progress, from my early days of internet access and even today, I am aware of the vastness of the WWW which overwhelms and underwhelms me at the same time because the web is really large and massive and gives me exposure to many brilliant people and ideas. Like the narrator emphasized in the “Hitchhikers Guide To Galaxy”, it is just unbelievably vast, huge and mind-bogglingly big. Whenever I go online, I feel like my neurons are connecting to the collective sentient consciousness of an entire species (well, those who have connectivity) residing on a little blue rock…
December 14, 2009: From the early days of computers, people have speculated that computers would be used to supplement our intelligence. Extended stores of knowledge, memories once forgotten, computational feats, and expert advice would all be at our fingertips. In the last decades, most of the work toward this dream has been in the form of trying to build artificial intelligence. By carefully encoding expert knowledge into a refined and well-pruned database, researchers strove to build a reliable assistant to help with tasks. Sadly, this effort was always thwarted by the complexity of the system and environment, too many variables and uncertainty for any small team to fully anticipate. (cue: ode to Vannevar Bush and “Memex”)
Success now is coming from an entirely unexpected source, the chaos of internet. Google (and smart search engines of tomorrow) has become our external brain, sifting through the extended stores of knowledge offered by multitudes, helping us remember what we once found, and locating advice from people who have been where we now go. For example, the other day, I was trying to describe to someone how mitochondria oddly have a separate genome, but could not recall the details. A search for [mitochondria] yielded a Wikipedia page that refreshed my memory. Later, I was wondering if train or flying between Venice and Rome was a better choice; advice arrived immediately on a search for [train flying venice rome]. Recently, I had forgotten the background of a colleague, restored again with a quick search on her name. Hundreds of times, I access le external brain, supplementing what is lost or incomplete in my own. This external brain is not programmed with knowledge, at least not in the sense we expected. There is no system of rules, no encoding of experts, no logical reasoning. There precious little understanding of information, at least not in the search itself. There is knowledge in the many voices that make up the data on the Web, but no synthesis of those voices.
Perhaps we should have expected this. Our brains, after all, are a controlled storm of competing patterns and signals, a mishmash of evolutionary agglomeration that is barely functional and easily fooled. From this chaos can come brilliance, but also superstition, illusion, and psychosis. While early studies of the brain envisioned it as a disciplined and orderly structure, deeper investigation has proved otherwise. And so it is fitting that the biggest progress on building an external brain also comes from chaos. Search engines pick out the gems in a democratic sea of competing signals, helping us find brilliance. Occasionally, our external brain leads us astray, as does our internal brain, but therein lies both the risk and beauty of building a brain on disorder. I have seen/played with future and it is not classical AI.
During the holiday season there is a lot of pressure to consume. Walmart becomes Wal-Santa and touts that it is now organic. Santa is one big buffoon indirectly telling us to go shopping, ho ho ho. But the truth of the matter is everybody likes presents and nobody wants to be percieved as the cynical evil green grinch (who once stole Christmas according to folklore) or frail old Scrooge (who had ghosts a visiting as per some silly book used as a metaphor too often) who have the gall to say that one hates gluttonic consumption, er Christmas. That is why lots of people are turning to “non-material gifts” which are presents that do not use up our natural resources but still make their recipients say, “whoa! awesome! tubul!”. Here are some ideas:
* Tickets to concerts, sporting events and movies
* Your own time and skills like free babysitting, gardening, cartooning, etc.
* Unique food experiences (people eat anyway, so these are “material-neutral”)
* Weekend getaways (no matter if it involves driving cars – humans are nomads)
* Crafts made from old throw-away items that nobody needs
This is what I have to say. This is a load of parrot droppings. Good luck to followers.
[edit – 20091119] While I initially did this in jest, it never escaped my purview that “running water” is still a dream chased by over 90% of the worlds population. There is just not enough water (the future wars will be fought over water and all that) and plumbing and there are just too many people. Why, just today, Thomas L Freidman in his latest piece, “Americans Living in Fools Paradise” quips –
people in the developing world are very happy being poor – just give them a little running water and electricity and they’ll be fine, no worries at all for us
Just gives more weight to the pondering, ain’t it? I guess we just have to live with the knowledge that those of us (believe me, it was a fight to get it working in my house) who have running water are the chosen lucky buggers and could do with a little more modesty in complaining about our pampered and mundane lives. If you are statistics/story inclined, you might want to go see some numbers and realities on Red Button Design (disclaimer: co-founder of this company, James Brown, was a club-mate of mine at University of Glasgow) making acclaimed Reverse Osmosis Sanitation Systems (ROSS) based water purifiers aimed at BoP of the third world.
Above all, it was the contrast between the opulence of the rulers and the poverty of their subjects that made my blood boil. But when I calmed down, I thought of the beauty of so many objects on display: despite their uselessness and decadence, these nawabs had left behind some wonderful buildings and works of art. Pyramids, mosques, churches and palaces were all built to impress the masses with the pomp and power of the ruling elites. While those who carried the stone blocks and erected these monuments may have been slaves and poorly paid workers, the ones who erected these opulent structures had no qualms about extracting taxes to pay for their follies. Later in the Raj period, the hedonism of the Indian princes reaches new levels of decadence. Magnificent necklaces in diamonds and emeralds are commissioned with Van Cleef and Arpel’s. Photographs of some of these symbolic rulers in immaculate Western dinner jackets, with their wives in stunning dresses, show them at their worst.
From the Taj Mahal to Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, it has been an unending story of exploitation and egomania. Nevertheless, the question to ask is whether we are better off for these magnificent buildings or not. Had they not been built, those who suffered during their construction might not have been as heavily taxed. But mankind would have been poorer without the amazing buildings that our forefathers have left behind. Ultimately, it is surplus labour and taxes that pay for most things of lasting value. If the state were to redistribute all revenues equally, there would be no surplus to foot the cost of research, or indeed, social and physical infrastructure. Creating and commissioning buildings and works of art for posterity are pastimes of the rich and the idle. These long-dead princes continue to amuse.
This brings back a conversation, nay, a continuing conflicted debate, I used to have during the International Society pub meets at the UoG, while contemplating ‘Penniless’ of why I felt that going to other places and admiring the buildings is an ode to stupid feudalism. I kept telling them that I dont enjoy tourism especially of the monumental kind because I only see the human cost and suffering in the ancient or middle or new whatever wonders of the world or country or state or city or town or village or neighbourhood or house. Very few people got the point. Many still don’t.